Mocked as one of the worst best-of-fives in Europe’s storied League of Legends esports history, the 2015 European League Championship Series Finals determined Fnatic over Unicorns of Love as the region’s representative to Riot Games’ inaugural Mid-Season Invitational.
North American champion Team SoloMid was heavily favored to make it out of the MSI 2015 group stages with Fnatic and International Wildcard Invitational winner Beşiktaş e-Sports Club widely thought of as the two teams that would fail to make it into the bracket stage. TSM was fresh off of their Season IX IEM World Championship win and, prior to the event, they were considered the strongest western team at MSI 2015.
What a difference a few days make.
TSM fell flat on their faces while Fnatic not only exited the group stages, but unexpectedly took tournament favorite SK Telecom T1 to five games in their semifinal. This earned renewed respect for the region and precipitated a year of consistently strong international showings for European teams across multiple events, including the 2015 World Championship.
Based on this more recent history — and a far more decorated journey in LoL esports since their inception — it’s easy to see why G2 Esports were favored headed into this year’s MSI event. China’s performance at the 2015 World Championship was, to use the massive understatement, wholly underwhelming and the 2016 NA LCS Spring Finals were regarded in a similar fashion to last year’s EU contest between Fnatic and UOL.
What a difference a year makes.
G2 have had a host of internal issues, visibly affecting their product both on and off of the Rift. China’s Royal Never Give Up have used MSI 2016 as a springboard towards cementing their identity and finding much-needed consistency that eluded the team throughout 2016 LoL Pro League Spring. Taiwan’s Flash Wolves have made quick work of those who doubt the LoL Masters Series as a major region, and CLG have once-again proven that they are the team that knows themselves best, cleverly overcoming obvious weaknesses. Korean powerhouse SKT has struggled almost as much as G2 and now finds themselves in a fight for the fourth and final bid into playoffs.
Three teams have now qualified for the MSI 2016 bracket stage, earning their respective regions top seeding at the 2016 World Championship along with regional bragging rights.
China’s Royal Never Give Up
Group Stage Record: 7-1
Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong and his four puppets was what this team boiled down to for much of the split. This was most visible in the actions of fellow former Samsung White teammate Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok, who found a new lease on life with RNG thanks to Mata’s sage direction. Mid laner Li “Xiaohu” Yuanhao attributed his newfound understanding of how to play the lane to Mata and their reckless AD carry Wang “Wuxx” Cheng is often far less impressive without Mata’s guidance.
While RNG’s run through the group stages was always possible, it was highly improbable due to the team’s inconsistent play throughout the season, refusal to back off from disadvantageous fights and lack of objective focus. Their previous international appearance at IEM Katowice was disappointing and their inability to play the map, exploited. The shadow of China’s depressing defeat at the 2015 World Championship loomed over RNG, the team seemingly next on the chopping block to receive fans’ collective bitterness. Before the LPL Finals, there was the sour joke that no Chinese team wanted to win finals due to the immense amount of pressure to redeem the region on their home soil of Shanghai.
RNG has surprisingly risen to this challenge on the back of their superior teamfighting and early game pressure. Jungler Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu has stymied opponents with routine level 2 ganks that are rarely seen in a meta that favors farming into early-to-mid game relevancy for skirmishes and objective contests. His proactive behavior is similar on both the quick-clear, aggressive Nidalee and the conventionally more passive Graves, immediately placing adversaries on the back foot. With Mlxg’s early pressure has come a more coordinated RNG that is capable of spreading teams on the map and forcing them into fights that they don’t want to take. RNG are still prone to aggressive mistakes — the recent fall to CLG, their first loss of the group stages, stands as a warning to the team before they prepare for a best-of-five series.
Taiwan’s Flash Wolves
Group Stage Record: 5-3
A lack of parity has plagued the Taiwanese league since they were a part of the Garena Pro League along with their Southeast Asian counterparts. Separating into the LoL Masters Series last year was the best thing to ever happen for LoL in Taiwan, but the lack of parity remained, with perennial favorites AHQ and the Flash Wolves consistently reigning at the top of the region.
Like RNG, the Flash Wolves were not favored to win their regional final, but win they did and in utterly dominating fashion with a 3-0 sweep over the aforementioned AHQ. At the MSI 2016 group stages, the Flash Wolves have shown both a strong understanding of the map along with teamfighting that is second only to China’s RNG.
Similarly led by their support, Hu “SwordArt” Shuojie, Flash Wolves have taken many of their cues from opponents throughout the group stages, feeling them out before forcing fights or trading objectives favorably, depending on which option is more advantageous against that particular foe. Proving that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as RNG’s Mata and ROX Tigers' Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon as one of the best supports in the world, SwordArt often puts his team at a numbers advantage by setting a vision net in enemy territory before waiting to ambush adversaries on Alistar. Mid laner Huang "Maple" Yitang has had a breakout group stage and jungler Hung "Karsa" HauHsuan has been one of the best in his position at the tournament.
The expectations of LMS are always murky. The Taipei Assassins remain in the collective consciousness as the Season 2 World Champions, but the Gamania Bears (now today’s Flash Wolves) were immediately fed to the SK Telecom T1 #2 woodchipper in Season 3, and both AHQ and TPA failed to make it out of the 2014 World Championship group stages. The Flash Wolves have done a large amount of work in returning the region to international relevancy — with moderately strong showings at the Season IX IEM World Championship and the 2015 World Championship — and if their MSI 2016 group stage performances are anything to go by, they could be the first Taiwanese major international tournament winner since 2012's TPA.
North America’s Counter Logic Gaming
Group Stage Record: 5-3
A cursory look at Counter Logic Gaming’s three losses finds the expected RNG and SKT alongside a dubious loss to IWCI representative SuperMassive. CLG quickly quashed fears that they were underestimating opponents with a victory over SKT the next day, but the fact that CLG are the only team to give SuperMassive a win slightly mars their overall group stage performance. It stands as a testament to how well the Turkish team played and a large oversight on CLG’s part in not banning SuperMassive support Mustafa "Dumbledoge" Kemal Gökseloğlu’s Bard. The only thing that CLG have to fear are themselves. If the team is firing on all cylinders, they can compete with the best in the world.
As CLG have progressed through the group stages, they’ve relied less on their near-patented 1-3-1 split push to spread opponents around the map and more on late-game teamfighting. Most recently, they won their second match against RNG thanks to two, large-scale late-game teamfights where CLG punished RNG’s Wuxx and Mlxg for their hubris. Much-maligned AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes has mostly silenced his critics — one Sivir game against SuperMassive aside — his newfound teamfighting prowess facilitated by excellent play from jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero, support Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black and top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha.
The most important thing to remember is that CLG entered this tournament with little to no expectations from the general community. Due to a year of disappointing international appearances — including CLG’s own failure to make it to the bracket stage of the 2015 World Championship — CLG, like 2015 Fnatic before them, was not expected to play a best-of-five series at MSI 2016. They, along with China’s RNG, have thoroughly enjoyed defying their fate, earning NA a top seed at the next World Championship in the process.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.